Webster defines the word clever as "marked by wit and ingenuity," a description many would agree befits debut artist Heather Solomon's artwork in the picture book Clever Beatrice by Margaret Willey (Atheneum). "I use a bit of everything," Solomon says of the technique she used to create the uniquely vibrant and intricate scenes for Willey's spunky tall tale. "I'm primarily a watercolorist, because I initially learned to paint in watercolor," she explains. "But I use other media [collage, acrylics, oils] to make up for what watercolor lacks: bright colors and texture."
It's perhaps no surprise that Solomon has mastered an intriguing formula for her compositions, as she paired her major in illustration at Brigham Young University with a major in molecular biology. "I was definitely going to be a scientist when I entered college," she says. "I always loved art but had been told, 'You can't do anything with that, it's just not practical.' I took some extra classes in the design department and saw that there were jobs, that art was a viable option. I decided that art was what I loved, and I went for the double major."
As her art education progressed, Solomon gravitated toward illustration, noting that she was "very drawn to children's books because it's such a nice format." When she finished her degree in 1999, she followed a common route of aspiring illustrators and began sending mailers/flyers to art directors, publishers and editors around the country. Eventually, Caitlyn Dlouhy, an editor at Atheneum, showed some interest. "About a year after I started my mailings, Caitlyn called and requested a portfolio," Solomon recalls.
At that time, Solomon acquired agent Jennie Dunham, now of Dunham Literary. "I did all the initial advertising for this project myself," Solomon says, "but Jennie followed up and took care of the talking side of things. She was instrumental in my getting the contract."
Solomon also gives praise to her editor. "Caitlyn has been great about letting me know how the whole publishing process goes. I'm working on a second book for her [If I Were a Lion, a picture book by Sarah Weeks] and she has spoken with me about some other possibilities as well."
Lisbeth Zwerger ("her work is so unique"), Leo and Diane Dillon, and Maurice Sendak make the shortlist of children's book illustrators whose work has influenced Solomon's own. She also continues to take inspiration from various books by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith ("Their books are off the beaten path and really engaging; they speak to the child inside"), Bear's Picture by Manus Pinkwater ("I love its message that you don't have to please everybody else"), which was a childhood favorite, and Monster Mama by Liz Rosenberg, illustrated by Stephen Gammell, a title she especially enjoys reading with her three-year-old daughter, Kelen.
Now settled in Albuquerque, N.Mex., Solomon, a single mother, structures her days with painting and play dates. "My daughter goes to preschool for three hours a day, so I work really hard then," she says. "But when she's home in the afternoon, I like to play and hang out with her; I'm a mom, essentially." A mom who has done some local book signings, had a painting for Clever Beatrice exhibited in the Society of Illustrators' annual Original Art Show and who will see the book's illustrations featured at Albuquerque's new children's museum facility.
By all indications, a bright career in illustration for Solomon is on the horizon. But in the grand scheme of things, she believes she's already reached a pinnacle. "I feel like having a book published is an accomplishment, even if I do nothing else, because I was able to see my dream through," Solomon says. "Clever Beatrice has changed my life but not my focus. It's given me confidence. Now I feel like I'm a real children's book illustrator."